NOTE: KATE SMURTHWAITE SAYS WHAT IS QUOTED IN THIS BLOG IS TOTALLY UNTRUE..
I once had to write an encyclopaedia entry on ‘Christianity’ in, I think it was, 23 lines.
It was an utter nightmare because, almost as soon as Christianity started, it broke into schisms which then, themselves, broke into other schisms. One might almost call them catty-schisms.
I would not like to write an entry on the Edinburgh Fringe, especially the history of its ‘free’ shows.
The Edinburgh Fringe is like the Great Barrier Reef – a vast sprawling single entity controlled by no-one, not even itself.
Who am I to query the Byzantine plotting, counter-plotting and shadow nether-world of gossip surrounding Edinburgh?
The basic back story is that Peter Buckley Hill rescued the Edinburgh Fringe from high prices and mediocrity by creating the Free Fringe. He was later helped by Alex Petty of Laughing Horse. But they split and Alex formed the Free Festival, competing with the PBH Free Fringe of Peter Buckley Hill.
These ‘free to enter’ shows were theoretically free for audiences, but there was a bucket at the end into which people could throw money. It was like indoor busking.
Promoter Bob Slayer then came along with what was possibly a more honest name instead of ‘Free’ – ‘Pay What You Want’ shows – via his Heroes venues which initially appeared in the Free Festival brochure but which then amicably became more separate.
Then there was another schism within the Free Fringe and this new breakaway group promoted themselves as the Freestival.
A couple of years ago, there were blogs aplenty about the tussle between the Free Fringe and the Freestival over the Cowgatehead venue in Edinburgh. Who knows which brother said what to whom about what or whom? Who knows if some meetings which allegedly did not take place two years ago were actually sound recorded? I merely mention it.
I just know that, if I get sent a good story, I will print it.
A couple of days ago, I got a message from someone I shall call Captain Bird’s Eye. The good Captain told me something I knew and something I did not know. He told me:
PBH was unfortunately poorly and in hospital for a short while.
I knew this.
Then he told me something I did not know:
Whilst PBH was out of action one of his leading team members Kate Smurthwaite took over the reigns immediately ousting Paul B Edwards and then appointing Chris Coltrane as comedy director. PBH is now out of hospital. This was his response:
Dear Friends (I hope) of the Free Fringe
As I wrote to you some days ago, I’m quite ill. Many of you have expressed sympathy, for which I thank you. This is not a plea for further sympathy.
My point is: I’m ill. I’m not dead.
And while I’m not dead, the Free Fringe is still my organisation, in which you of course have a stake.
While I was in hospital, the reins were taken up by some members of the team, some of which was indeed helpful. However, I did not anticipate that decisions and personnel changes would be made without consulting me and presented to me as faits accomplis.
I had, and I sent it to you, a scheme for encouraging more volunteers to come on board in a transparent fashion, so that we could transition to the next generation of management openly and co-operatively. My illness meant that I was not able to set this in motion in October as I had planned.
This does not mean that decisions others have made, no matter how helpfully, are binding on me. I’m still the dictator until a better and more harmonious scheme is put in place.
The only new Artistic Director I have appointed is Ewan Leeming, to replace myself as AD of Science and Rationalism.
Contrary to what you may have heard, I have not approved a new arrangement for Comedy. There will need to be one and I would like to hear from interested and appropriately experienced parties. This is a large portfolio and will require a team.
As of the sending of this email, Kate Smurthwaite has no managerial or organisational role within The Free Fringe. I thank her for all the things she has done in the past, both professionally and personally.
I merely pass this on, as I received it, unedited, without comment.
Except to say I feel I have come unstuck in an alternate universe in which the after-events of the Russian Revolution or the start of Christianity have somehow transposed themselves into the world of Edinburgh Fringe comedy.
What further truths, half-truths and fantastical twists lurk in the shadows I know not.
Yesterday’s blog revolved around a blog posted two days ago in which Kate Copstick had described the terrible plight of teenage brides in Kenya but finished with a lighthearted reference to the size of a kitten’s testicles.
Reader ‘Glenda’ had commented that “unfortunately, the witty remark about a cat’s balls is what registers on the reader’s mind and the serious issue concerning these African women is simply forgotten.”
In yesterday’s blog, I wondered if jokes in serious pieces demeaned the subject. A few of the comments on this were:
No, perception & timing & intent. A lot like robbing a security van John. (comedian Del Strain, via Twitter)
Yes and make them affordable to the masses.(Griff, via Twitter)
Depends on the quality of the joke. (Andrew Fox, via Facebook)
I had almost completely forgotten the kitten balls. But not the women.(Anna Smith, via WordPress)
Glenda’s comment is absolute bollocks (coincidentally). The levity at the end of the blog if anything throws the serious content into relief. Why do people have to be needlessly disparaging and superior, i.e: “It’s all very worthy and honourable, Kate Copstick blogging about the plight of these African women . . .”(comedian Janet Bettesworth, via WordPress)
Actually, I think Glenda has a point and I can see both sides.
I did think, when I posted Copstick’s diary piece, about chopping off the end bit re the kitten for the very reason Glenda gives. But I did not because I thought it would misrepresent what Copstick wrote, plus it did add a bit of jollity, plus it gave a plug to Malcolm Hardee and would mean something extra to a section of the blog readership. Other responses have been:
It’s oversimplifying to say the piece ends with an “adolescent remark.” It actually ends with some quite melancholy paragraphs about the late friend’s number being changed and the consolation of symbolically “making order from chaos”. The final details of the cats provides a beautiful counterpoint to this melancholy. It’s a very well written piece and anyone who forgets the main point so easily is probably going to forget it in a few moments away. (Cy, via WordPress)
Life goes on. In the midst of difficulty and death the small humorous things still raise their heads, ask to be observed as part of our reality. To help people effectively and constructively, I assume you have to be pragmatic and matter of fact, not hand-wringing which wouldn’t help anyone but which is easy enough to do from the comfort of our armchair viewing.(comedian Charmian Hughes, via WordPress)
Levity is an absolute necessity in what can be considered a very dark subject and I agree with Katie in her opinion regarding light and shade. It does raise the question regards what subjects can humour be added to and where we, as a society, draw the line.
Take the very dark subject of paedophilia. Many jokes have been told by comedians about the Catholic Church and their approach towards priests who have abused vulnerable youngsters for decades, yet similar jokes about such showbiz individuals as Jimmy Savile face a barrage of criticism.
Perhaps it’s related to proximity or maybe the identification of individuals makes something much more personal and intense than an organisation. It is probably a very big discussion about what subjects are taboo amongst comedians and at what point a particular subject is deemed acceptable.(Alan Gregory, via WordPress)
Once I went to see Mark Thomas and I was really impressed by the combination of sincerely-felt idealism on one hand and irony on the other. After the show, I had a brief chat with him and he explained that the secret is taking the cause seriously while never taking seriously you fighting the cause. It’s a form of dissociation. On the other hand, people who are not able to do so and cannot poke fun at their idealism often become unintentionally ridiculous. Think of Don Quixote. Or Peter Buckley Hill.(comedian Giacinto Palmieri, via email)
Sit back with a good supply of tea for this blog. Extensive, exhaustive and possibly exhausting quotes are included. People not living inside the bubble of the Edinburgh Fringe might be advised to look elsewhere.
The whole Cowgatehead saga at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe is too complicated to go into yet again. Read past blogs for clarification but beware your head may explode with details.
Suffice it to say that the Freestival organisation believed they had rights to programme acts in the Cowgatehead venue at the Edinburgh Fringe and Peter Buckley Hill’s PBH Free Fringe ended up with those rights resulting in, by one estimate, an overall financial loss to performers of £77,000.
This could have been avoided if the various parties had met to sort it out and (in my personal opinion) PBH himself was a bit slippery though not telling any direct porkies with careful use of the present tense and an implication but not a statement that a meeting had never at any point been agreed with the Kenny Waugh involved in the fiasco. This being the Fringe, there were three people in one family all called Kenny Waugh.
On 18th August, I posted a blog headlined BAD SIGNS AT THE EDINBURGH FRINGE criticising the awful signposting at the PBH venue Cowgatehead as well as at C Venues and Just The Tonic’s Mash House and Caves.
The What’s On Where posters and signage in The Counting House is fairly good, which is not standard at the Fringe.
The Cowgatehead venue – fought over and proudly won by the PBH Free Fringe – is a disaster. The tiny doorway onto the street is barely visible and not even clearly identified as the Cowgatehead. Once inside, there is a vast bar and music area unrelated to the Free Fringe rooms and you have to spot that you have to double back, go down steps and then turn corners and go up stairs to get to the upper storeys which have venue spaces called things like UP2L. Even if you get vaguely near the rooms, the pieces of paper with their identification numbers/letters tend to be on the outside of the doors of the rooms so that, near performance times when doors are left open, they are hidden from sight.
This policy of putting names on the outside of doors which, when open, are completely invisible seems also to have been followed by C Venues at their Nova building – and probably in their other buildings, as C Venues have always been notable for appallingly bad or non-existent signage within their buildings. There are giant bleedin’ signs outside proclaiming what the venue is. Good. But, once inside, you have to guess, explore and try to find someone who knows which floor or room a show is in. There ARE some small notices, but hidden on walls amid an overwhelming visual patchwork of brightly-coloured show posters.
There should be a prize (perhaps there will be) for worst signage at the Fringe. Just the Tonic might win. As of last night, there appear to be no signs of any kind to any performance rooms in their Mash House venue. And the interior of their Caves venues – particularly for the shows they admirably ‘saved’ from the Cowgatehead debacle – are utterly incomprehensible. I half expect to find a Minotaur in there.
There was no reaction from C Venues or Just the Tonic.
But yesterday, Frank Galbraith of the PBH Free Fringe commented on one of my Facebook pages:
You need to go to specsavers you blind tnuc
and posted the photo below.
The venues on the Cowgate in Edinburgh (Photograph posted on Facebook by Frank Galbraith)
“The narrow doorway on the left was not clearly signposted a the time I wrote the piece. It is now signed clearly with the door usually closed, giving no access to Cowgatehead. The entrance to Cowgatehead is the larger one on the right, clearly identified as St James’ Gate Brewery. To access Cowgatehead from this entrance, you have to go into the St James’ music space, turn sharp left, go down into a narrow stone gap with a piece of paper identifying it, do a 360 degree turn up stairs and then find the Cowgatehead rooms on the floors above the St James’ Gate space below which you initially went under.”
Full Facebook interchange
“I do have to admit that the external signage could have been more visible during the first few days. However, this hasn’t deterred on average 2000 people per day attending shows on the lower 2 levels and entering the venue via Cowgate. We also have a further 900 per day entering via George IV Bridge doors for the shows on the top level. Not quite the disaster you are attempting to portray.
I was a little bemused by this because I had said the signage not the number of punters was a disaster – and also very surprised by these very concrete audience figures in a venue with no visible close supervision. So I replied:
My admiration on the use of hidden security cameras filming and counting people entering the venues and on the stairway to Cowgatehead from the outer entrance. Must be a Fringe first. Genuine admiration for the use of the technology to gauge punter numbers.
Haha.. you must know big brother is everywhere. Actually we take average performers audience numbers, we trust implicitly the reports our performers give us, then deduct 10%!!!
I have to say this to-and-fro did not change my opinion of the factual slipperiness of the PBH Free Fringe.
The PBH Free Fringe also has a highly dubious contract of untried legal validity which says acts performing in their venues cannot perform at free venues run by other organisations on the Fringe. This appears to be to be a clear restriction of the right to trade. Others may disagree.
I wanted to end the 2-hour free show (in which all donations are given to charity with no deductions of any kind) by having The Greatest Show on Legs perform their signature Naked Balloon Dance. This act lasts 3 minutes. One of the long-time Greatest Show on Legs performers was that year performing his own show at a PBH venue and was told by PBH that, if he performed in the three minute act during the 2-hour Counting House charity show, then he would have his own show on the PBH Free Fringe terminated.
This seemed to be a bizarre combination of paranoia and staggering… erm, well… the opposite of laissez-faire liberalism.
That was then. This is now.
Well, what follows actually happened yesterday.
Since the start of the Fringe – over two weeks ago – comedian Stephen Carlin has been appearing as one of four performers in the play Routines at the Laughing Horse Free Festival venue Three Sisters at 3.45pm and in his own solo comedy show The Gospel According to Stephen at the PBH Free Fringe venue Canons’ Gait at 7.15pm.
This is the conversation I had with Stephen last night…
Stephen Carlin talked to me last night on neutral territory
“So what happened?” I asked.
“One of the flyering team for Routines flyered PBH,” he told me. “Then, when I was on stage performing Routines and my phone was off, PBH sent me a text message (at 3.50pm):
“Hello Stephen. I have in my hand a flier for a Laughing Horse show with your name and face on it, for a full run. Can you please explain? Thank you. PBH.
“There there was a second text message sent at 5.20pm saying:
“Hello Stephen. I have had no reply to my previous text message. It is clear from the evidence that you have broken the Free Fringe Ethos and Conditions by being a permanent and billed part of a Laughing Horse show. Your Free Fringe show is therefore terminated with immediate effect. Regards PBH.
“I did go down to the venue tonight,” said Stephen, “just to thank the staff and there were a few people who turned up who couldn’t get in last night because it was sold out. Last night, we had BBC 4 Extra recording it for a feature – They got probably my last ever PBH performance because I think you get excommunicated by PBH. It’s a religious-titled show – The Gospel According to Stephen – so, in a way, it seems only right I should get excommunicated.”
“What is the show about?” I asked.
“It’s a stand-up show basically inside my head. I get to be right for one hour. I am wrong for 23 hours of the day but for this one hour in the day I can give my thoughts on various aspects of life and be correct.”
“Have you any idea,” I asked, “how much it has cost you? – It’s complicated by the fact you were doing two shows.”
“I think it cost maybe about £1,500 or so overall.”
“And you’ve made some money back…” I said.
“I haven’t broken even yet, so I was kinda hoping in the last week to break even.”
“What,” I asked, “have you been doing since you were excommunicated from the true path of light?”
“Since then,” said Stephen, “I’ve had offers from Laughing Horse, Freestival and Bob Slayer. So, from tomorrow, I’m going to move the show to Bob Slayer’s Heroes of the Fringe at The Hive. But I can’t perform it on Friday and Saturday, because the room’s already booked then.”
“Same time of day?” I asked.
“No. the show at the Hive is at 10.10pm; the Canons’ Gait one was at 7.15pm.”
“Can you,” I asked, “put stickers on your flyers with the new place and time?”
“I think the good old stapler is going to have to come out.”
“Are you a member of Equity?” I asked.
“The PBH contract,” I suggested, “surely has to be illegal because it’s a restriction of trade. Any opinions about PBH? I think it’s a case of the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. A good man who wanted to help the acts who ends up financially screwing them.”
“I think,” said Stephen, “in many ways it’s indicative of a lot of revolutions. It starts off idealistic but then you get to a point where people start getting cut out for breaching parts of dogma and then the people it has set out to help are actually being badly affected. The System starts coming before the people. I think it’s a well-trodden historical path.”
“Well,” I said, “given the Animal Farm analogy, is it the case that PBH is standing on two feet now?”
“I don’t think anybody can sue us for that,” said Stephen. “He is standing on two feet. The question is, if I speak to other blogs, would you denounce me?”
I think, as a generalisation, most religions tend to be a good thing – most religions are amiable – but most organised religions are a bad thing. ‘Organisation’ inevitably means politicking and power corrupting originally admirable ideals.
As I say, I am remaining on-subject here.
The elevator explanation of the current chaos is that the PBH Free Fringe was created by Peter Buckley Hill (PBH) as an altruistic alternative to the increasingly commercialised and (for acts) expensive traditional Fringe where the acts pay to hire venues and audiences pay in advance of seeing the show.
The Free Fringe used the centuries-old model of busking and took it indoors. The acts do not pay to perform in a space. The audience sees their shows for free and decides, on exit, how much to pay, if anything.
PBH then joined forces with Laughing Horse promoter Alex Petty. There was soon a schism and Laughing Horse formed the Free Festival as either complementary or a rival, depending on your concept of the ‘ownership’ of the model of indoor busking.
Years trundled by and there was another schism. More of the PBH helpers – described by some as his “right hand men” – split off and last year formed The Freestival.
PBH had previously seen Alex Petty and the Free Festival as (my words) The Great Satan. Now Freestival became The Great Satan. It is a bit like the schisms in Christianity or Islam. I think calling PBH “the ISIS of free comedy” might be going a tiny bit too far, unless people start being beheaded in The Royal Mile. But at least ISIS take hostages and the Sunni/Shia aggro is not a bad analogy.
This year, as last year, there was a tussle over which organisation had rights to programme the Cowgatehead venue, owned and run in labyrinthine ways by three men from the same family, all called Kenny Waugh.
Last year, the Freestival ran shows in the bottom half of the Cowgatehead building; the Free Fringe ran shows in the top half.
This year (as far as anyone publicly knew until after the deadline to be listed in the main Fringe Programme was past – it is published tomorrow) the Freestival had rights from one or more of the Kenny Waughs to programme acts at Cowgatehead.
Then, out of nowhere, PBH suddenly announced (I think only on Facebook) that he owned rights to programme Cowgatehead although, as far as I know, no acts had, at that point, ever been approached or accepted to perform there.
The Freestival were (like almost everyone else, I think) surprised but eventually suggested a compromise which was that PBH should book acts into six rooms in the top half of the building, as they did last year. And Freestival would book acts into the bottom half of the building, as they did last year. Freestival would run nine rooms by building extra ones, as they did last year.
Freestival suggested a meeting to take place yesterday between them, PBH, a Kenny Waugh and (added into the equation later) the Fringe Office and Freestival’s sponsors.
This compromise would mean that PBH got the six rooms he proposed in the Cowgatehead venue. Freestival would get the nine venues they proposed there. And no acts would be adversely affected.
Any alternative would severely affect all acts who had – months ago with no squeak of any kind from PBH – booked into Cowgatehead with Freestival, paid the Fringe Office for a listing in the main Programme, written shows over the last six or more months and booked accommodation (with deposits) as well as having posters and flyers designed and, if they were abnormally efficient, printed.
Yesterday, Freestival issued a statement (I have not corrected the spelling):
Today’s meeting with PBH, the licensee (of Cowgatehead) and representatives of the Fringe office will now not take place. The Licencee agreed to travel to London and take part in compromise talks with PBH and ourselves. He, along with ourselves invited PBH to that meeting but despite multiple requests and invites from us, the licensee and the Fringe society and also our Sponsor flying to London to meet with Peter, Peter has refused to attend or to open a constructive dialogue.
As a result the licensee will now not attend the planned meeting. We are very saddened by PBH’s complete intransigence and the subsequent devastation this will now cause to many peoples Edinburgh program. We will be releasing a full statement soon with any further details we can obtain and will be continuing to work with the Fringe office on a solution.
While we haven’t given up on a solution if PBH can be persuaded to enter into discussions we must, for now, assume the Cowgatehead is no longer our primary venue. We also believe that PBH has taken control of St.Johns – Victoria Street and Probably the Tron Kirk although we have as yet had no official notification of this.
We are so very sorry that after everyone’s hard work since the last Fringe all our efforts and energies regarding these venues have been wasted. We have secured a number of alternative spaces in order to accommodate those acts not moving over to PBH’s ethos, we hope to have the complete number of new spaces required signed up by the end of this week. We will be contacting all acts involved shortly and making a statement once that is done.
It does not matter who is right and who is wrong here. There was a compromise on the table which would have meant no act lost money, no act lost their advertised venue space and no act lost shows.
In a posting on PBH’s Facebook page on 25th May, performer Ray Davis wrote:
Some 170 odd performers are booked into a performance space, with the considerable personal investment they would have made (these are “free spaces” yet accommodation for the month is typically £600-£1000 for a room in a shared house, almost £400 to be in the Fringe Programme, advertising, flyers, pre-booked transportation, etc.).
The venue was offered by an organisation called “Freestival” and only after the festival programme deadline had passed (£400 remember?) did PBH claim that these bookings were null and void as he had right to the venue.
PBH has held out what I believe he thinks is an olive branch in so much as he’ll consider acts transferring over “where he can” but they have to sign an exclusivity deal to do so, breaking links with any other organisation at the Fringe – so if they have another show elsewhere… can’t do it. If they’ve been invited to participate in a showcase… can’t do it. Bit like going into McDonalds and having to sign to agree not to buy (or eat) fast food from anywhere else for all of August.
To avoid accepting or even discussing the compromise in pursuit of personal revenge over people PBH regards as (my words) renegades from the true Free Fringe religion and a personal one-sided vendetta knowing for certain – for certain – that this will without any doubt at all result in mental anguish, financial damage and career damage to the performers you claim to champion is behaviour so self-centred and uncaring that is likely to mean that, even if PBH were to win this self-perceived battle, he would be likely to disastrously lose the self-declared war. Because all credibility and all past positive actions are likely to be wiped out by this act of sheer short-sighted selfish vindictiveness.
The PBH position is to refuse to even discuss a compromise where the Cowgatehead venue would accommodate a suggested 15 performance rooms. The PBH Free Fringe would prefer to accommodate 6 performance spaces featuring so-far un-booked acts simply to bugger-up the Freestival which had already booked acts into 9 rooms which a Kenny Waugh had told them they had the right to do.
PBH has said he might book some of the pre-booked acts into ‘his’ rooms but maybe at different times to those advertised (and paid for) in the main Fringe Programme. And all acts would have to sign his draconian 3,600 word contract which says the acts cannot appear elsewhere.
The Free Fringe is the only Fringe operator with this extraordinary restriction of trade preventing performers from performing.
Around 150-170 acts who have been writing, rehearsing and paying for their presumed hour-long, month-long Edinburgh shows for the last six or nine months now face cancellation of their shows, loss of earnings, loss of payments made, loss of deposits on accommodation and more. Even if they can find an alternative venue or are ‘given’ a room by PBH, their Programme listings will be wrong and paid-for posters/flyers will have to be changed.
It does not matter who is right and who is wrong here. There was a compromise on the table which would have meant no act lost any money, no act lost their advertised venue space and no act lost shows.
The reason acts are going to be damaged – and they definitely are; they already have been – is solely because that compromise was not even discussed by PBH.
There is a show at the Bloomsbury Theatre on Tuesday 30th June to raise money for the PBH Free Fringe. Tickets cost £15 or £12.50 concessions plus a £2.50 booking fee. The acts advertised include Alistair Barrie, Nick Helm, Robin Ince, Stewart Lee and Howard Read. It would be interesting to know if these same acts are going to organise any gig to raise money for their far less well-off fellow performers damaged by PBH’s scorched earth actions.
I asked various people for estimates of how much acts are likely to lose. One reply came from Ian Fox, performer and author of the book How to Produce, Perform and Write an Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Show. He told me:
I am not a Freestival act, but I would estimate the £150 Freestival fee, and £295 for a discounted Fringe Programme entry. It is a bit early to have paid for posters and flyers, but there could be advertising fees if they had a quarter-page advert in the Fringe Programme (around £1,500 says John), or bought space on a Fringe type website for £50.
If they get a new slot, they could still make use of accommodation and transport costs. Otherwise, the deposit on a flat could be anything from £300 to £500 and a rail ticket costs £75 approximately, unless they’re flying in from somewhere… So £1,000 is a feasible number, for worst case scenario.
Those shows in Cowgatehead 7,8,9 (the Freestival’s extra venues in addition to the Free Fringe’s six) which are automatically lost, based on 11 shows per room if they started at noon and went till midnight with a 15 minute turnaround between shows… £11,000 per room, £33,000 total. Add into that The Tron Kirk and St Johns and that’s another £22,000.
Then factor in the 6 remaining rooms at Cowgatehead… Some of the shows will have been moved over (from Freestival to Free Fringe) but say a third of them were not – that is another £22,000… So £22,000 + £33,000 + £22,000, means potentially acts have forgone up to £77,000.
Bearing in mind the amount of money potentially lost from a last-minute decision to switch a provider and break a verbal agreement… which I think puts them in an actionable position, as their actions have directly caused others financial loss… Who in their right mind refuses to turn up to a meeting?
Ray Davis, in his posting on the PBH Facebook page on 25th May wrote:
PBH’s Free Fringe is promoted as a collective, a freely run not for profit organisation, yet this smacks of the worst sort of bloody nosed business practice. Audiences of course won’t know nor give a shit.
Individual acts have only a small voice.
If PBH is a volunteer then this sort of who-hah won’t cost him financially. But in the longer term it could of course cost him the years of good will and hard work he’s put in to build a Free Fringe model.
Yesterday, to my knowledge, at least three performers cancelled the London previews for their Edinburgh shows. Presumably because they believe they will not be able to stage their prepared shows because of all the shenanigans.
Yesterday, too, an act who has performed on the Free Fringe for several years – and who has a show there this year – told me he had been thinking of cancelling his show because he felt uncomfortable being associated with the “stench” (his words) of the current Free Fringe. He said he had, however, decided not to cancel because of the cost.
It is a pity many acts will not be given this choice.
And still the saga continues because, this morning, I was told off-the-record of the existence of an e-mail which will further muddy the waters.
Cowgatehead in Edinburgh, scene of the ‘Free’ power tussle
The last couple of days, this blog has been devoted to – mesmerised by – one topic.
Welcome to Day Three.
There can only be two sensible explanations for the wild madness of the current Cowgatehead venue debacle in Edinburgh.
One is that it is an astonishingly intricate attempt to win an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award for best publicity stunt at the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe.
The other is that it is all some fly-on-the-wall pilot for an upcoming TV comedy series.
Those are the only two sensible explanations but, of course, any sort of sense has long since been thrown out the window in this ongoing debacle involving an Edinburgh Fringe venue apparently owned and run by three members of the same family, all of whom are called Kenny Waugh and one of whom was the chairman of Hibernian Football Club.
You can do your own Googling and there are more recent articles, but a piece in the Edinburgh Evening News in 2006 described one of the Kenny Waughs (the Lord only knows how you define which) thus:
The son of former Hibs chairman Kenny Waugh Jnr, 44, is now the owner of Festival Inns – the operator that owns numerous city bars and clubs including The Three Sisters, Beluga and Cargo.
Initially working part time in the pubs run by his father, the former joiner developed a feel for what was required to cut the mustard in Edinburgh’s bar scene.
He went on to form his own public house business, Thistle Inns, in 1990 with his cousin, pub operator Billy Lowe. In 1997 they sold out to brewing giant Scottish & Newcastle for £20 million. “Billy was a pub operator and it seemed an ideal partnership where I could find and build the pubs and he would run them,” Waugh has said.
He then set up Festival Inns, which now owns bars and clubs in Edinburgh, Bridge of Allan, St Andrews and Aberdeen, and has an annual turnover of £25 million.
In a recent survey from The Publican magazine, Mr Waugh was positioned 63rd in the 100 richest people involved in Britain’s licensed trade, with wealth estimated at £13.3 million.
Now back to the current Edinburgh Fringe debacle.
Yesterday afternoon, the Freestival issued a press release. It read:
Freestival board member Jools Constant met with the licensee of Cowgatehead, Kenny Waugh, this afternoon and has hammered out a compromise agreement under which Freestival would retain the lower 3 floors which are already booked in. Under this arrangement no Freestival acts would be required to move, and all existing time slots would be honoured. PBH would take the upper floors and would have ample space for the 6 rooms he has proposed and would be able to book those as he sees fit. A meeting to discuss this is arranged for next week. Freestival and the Licensee have already confirmed attendance. All that remains is for Peter and the Free Fringe board to sit down with us and work out the details.
We have sent an e-mail to Peter requesting that he meet with us in the spirit of cooperation and in the best interests of the acts.
One might have thought this was an ideal outcome.
Both sides – the Free Fringe and the Freestival – claim to have the welfare of the performers at heart.
This proposed compromise would mean the already booked Freestival shows could go ahead as planned, as paid for and as listed in the Fringe Programme. And the Free Fringe could book in extra shows not printed in the main Fringe Programme (which comes out next week).
Then the Free Fringe posted this as a message on the closed Free Fringe Facebook page. It refers to PBHFF, which means PBH Free Fringe. PBH is Peter Buckley Hill, the man who originated and still controls the Free Fringe organisation:
Performer Doug Segal’s take on the Cowgatehead debacle
As most of you know since 2010 I have been assisting Peter and the PBHFF Artistic Directors with venue sourcing, negotiating, retention etc amongst other voluntary duties that we all get involved with.
Whilst, understandably, people are looking for information regarding the Venue Cowgatehead, I feel it only right that our own members be given the facts so that we can put a stop to the speculation that PBHFF are somehow to blame for Freestival’s predicament.
To alleviate any doubt, I can confirm that PBH Free Fringe have agreed terms and exchanged signed venue contractual agreements to provide performers at Cowgatehead & Cowshed during Edinburgh Fringe 2015. This information was passed to the fringe office on Thursday 21st May 2015. Copies will be sent to the relevant bodies only.
One thing that most of you weren’t aware of is there were several parties interested in leasing the Cowgatehead space this year, at least four including a bid from Freestival in conjunction with a new sponsor to operate the bars.
When I spoke with the owners during Feb/March this year I expressed our interest in using the Cowgatehead spaces during Edfringe 2015. I was informed by the owners that several bids had already been submitted to lease the entire building and that they were presently considering their options on either leasing as one unit or whether to split into two units. I was also asked if they split into two would PBHFF be interested in also using the top floor levels (George IV Bridge) again as we did in 2014, obviously I said yes and that I would discuss the terms with our license operators and get them to discuss further with the owners and their agents. During my discussions with the license operators I was informed that Freestival had also approached them with an interest in using the entire building.
At this point PBH informed the fringe office that PBHFF may be using the building this year and that no other promoters have confirmation from the owners or lessors to use CGH. PBH also advised the fringe office that they should be wary of accepting adverts from any performers until the licensees and promoters status was confirmed. I also know this information was relayed to Freestival as they had informed the fringe office that they have confirmed use of the spaces for 2015.
As you now know PBH was contacted by the newly announced lessor of the building and asked if he would promote the venue this year. When PBH informed him that we had discussed providing the entertainment with one of the other interested parties he said he already knew this. When we also told him that Freestival had already informed the fringe office that they were using the venue and that they had already booked acts, the lessor was furious and stated that he did not nor would he be giving them permission. He also stated that he couldn’t have given such permission anyway as he had not yet secured the lease himself.
As we had already received an indication from the owners that PBHFF, to at least some degree, would be operating as the venue promoters this year we put on standby several performers for the venue. However, we decided not to declare this until we had 100% confirmation and a signed contractual agreement.
Having further discussed the offer to promote the venue with our Artistic Directors we met with the lessor the following day and signed the agreement contracts.
With regards to St John’s (Bar Bados) the lessor informed us that it was decided last year that no shows would be programmed into the venue for 2015 should the venue be made available to him. The reason being sound pollution from the bar was interfering with the performances and the performers were asking that the bar area be kept quiet or not be used during all performances. As a result bar taking suffered. The lessor also confirmed that no agreement is/was in place with Freestival to use the venue this year and we also have a signed venue contractual agreements to provide suitable musical acts this year.
With regards to Tron Kirk we also have a signed venue contractual agreements to promote all acts during the fringe and our Artistic Directors for music and cabaret have been informed.
Whilst the allocations and booking of acts has absolutely nothing to do with me, I have been assured that every consideration will be given to the performers affected and that PBH and the Artistic Directors are presently working on the list.
There also seems to be some discussion about the number of available spaces/stages within CGH this year. We have discussed this with the lessor and it is totally impractical to put 9 stages in the available floors. We are presently discussing options for the best usage of possible additional space within the building and hope to announce the details in a few days.
This has been an extremely busy time for all the team at PBHFF, not withstanding looking after 40+ Venues with 60+ stages this year, whilst trying to accommodate a backlog of 100’s of performance applications over and above those that were promised slots by Freestival.
It is now disappointing to see that some people are going on the attack without first knowing the circumstances. However it is even more disappointing to read the statements made by Freestival basically accusing PBH of stealing their venue out of spite.
For the record, when I spoke to the parties that were involved in tendering for the CGH space they informed me that Freestival were never promised use of the venue. From what I now read they are saying that negotiations was with their sponsors it was their sponsor that negotiated the agreement due to their involvement with the building. That statement is inaccurate as their sponsors have no connection with CGH and are/were not in a position to give any assurances that Freestival would be the venue promoters no matter who were the licensees.
I also find it extremely disturbing that Freestival claim to have entered into discussions with two of the parties that were tendering for the site and agreed with them to provide all their entertainment, a claim that is denied by the parties, and then go directly to the property owner and submit their own bid to lease the site and run the bars along with another new sponsor they had approached.
PBHFF have now had to suffer a backlash of derogatory comments in the press and on social media about how the PBHFF team operates. Let me assure you that we are not smarting over this situation and completely sympathise with the performers that have been let down due to the mismanagement of their promoters. We have conducted ourselves in a professional and ethical manner during our negotiations with all parties involved. However, we will not accept unjustified criticism from the people that caused this situation just to try and save face.
PBHFF will continue with the same ethos to promote the true free non for profit model that was put together by most of the performers involved in these discussions. We do not accept sponsorship or grants, we work in harmony with the goodwill of our venue owners and performers to offer a totally free platform for the performers. We don’t pay for venues, we don’t charge our performers a registration fees or take advanced audience bookings to watch a free show for £5.
The PBHFF model has worked for the last 20 years and we hope for it to continue for the foreseeable future.
I trust this explains the situation thus far, well from my perspective anyway. Let’s hope that, given the opportunity, the performers issues can be resolved amicably and we all have a really good Edinburgh Fringe 2015 and beyond!
UPDATE: The PBHFF team are working extremely hard to resolve the situation for the Freestival acts. Having just now discussed the situation with the licensee, in light of recent Freestival claims, PBH will remain as venue promoter for Cowgatehead & Cowshed. A further planned meeting has been arranged for later this week and all performers will be updated.
Call me old-fashioned, but the phrase “completely sympathise with the performers” used in the above does seem tailor-made for any proposed TV sitcom based on all these shenanigans.
I am merely a bemused observer, but all this seems to me to be more about controlling a venue and not about the welfare of and financial consequences to the performers. A classic case of the road to Hell being paved with long-forgotten good intentions.
There was a sentence in there that said: “Let’s hope that, given the opportunity, the performers issues can be resolved amicably.”
It seems to me that a possible opportunity arose and was rejected.
Copstick and me, both bemused, at the Grouchy Club Podcast
Yesterday, between the issuing of the Freestival press release and the Free Fringe Facebook posting, comedy critic Kate Copstick and I recorded our weekly Grouchy Club Podcast.
Now overtaken by events, it may still be of interest. It discusses, among other things, the Cowgatehead chaos, Copstick’s admiration for Peter Buckley Hill and Scottish law under which (unlike English law) an oral agreement is legally binding.
Peter Buckley Hill (PBH) of theFree Fringe claims that his organisation and not the breakaway Freestival organisation has the rights to stage shows at Cowgatehead.
He told acts who had already booked with Freestival, paid the Edinburgh Fringe for a listing in the Programme (it’s out next week) and possibly paid to have flyers and posters designed:
“The Free Fringe will entertain applications from you. You will have to accept the Free Fringe Ethos and Conditions. These conditions stipulate that you should not be an applicant to any other provider of free-admission shows. This means that you should dissociate from Freestival forthwith.”
In a Chortle comedy website opinion piece, editor Steve Bennett clarified the catch in this offer:
“Performers who want to be part of the PBH Free Fringe have to sign up to a 3,600-word ‘conditions and ethos’ statement – a key part of which is that if you apply to the Free Fringe you cannot apply to any rival. This is the only operator – including the supposedly evil paid venues – to impose this draconian condition on applicants.
“PBH stressed this clause in his Facebook post, putting comedians in an impossible situation. They cannot hedge their bets and apply to PBH in case he’s right, while keeping their Freestival slots open. He’s forcing them to quit Freestival and go with him in a situation, frankly, where no one knows for sure what’s happening.”
That seems – in the context of this labyrinthine mess – fairly simple.
If an act believes the Free Fringe may have rights to the Cowgatehead venue and the Freestival may not, then that act can unlink itself from the Freestival. But the Free Fringe insists it is an either/or situation.
Of course, inevitably, it is more complicated than that.
Yesterday promoter Bob Slayer, who runs the Heroes organisation, pointed out to me something which he says has been overlooked.
“The main dilemma,” he told me, “is not about acts denouncing Freestival – who won’t take that personally.
“There are acts that are involved in a second show with one of the other free promoters or us that cannot transfer their Cowgatehead show to PBH unless they cancel their other show.”
So, for example, an act may have had one free show booked into Cowgatehead with Freestival AND a separate free show booked in at a Laughing Horse Free Festival venue or at one of Bob’s Heroes venues.
In those circumstances, the act could not simply cancel their Cowgatehead booking with Freestival and transfer to a Cowgatehead booking via the Free Fringe. They would also have to cancel their entirely separate show with the other promoter.
Bob tells me: “I am not sure how many this acts this effects but I know for sure Phil Kay is one act that PBH has rejected transferring because of this! Crazy!”
I have to agree with him and to lament that PBH – a man with originally good intentions – has paved the road leading to this Hellish situation. If you apply to the Free Fringe you cannot apply to any other venue operator whom PBH perceives as a rival. Like Chortle, I am aware of no other venue operator at the Edinburgh Fringe who imposes this draconian condition on applicants.
This blatant restriction of trade and limitation on acts’ freedom to perform has always been more than a little surprising coming from an organisation originally set up with the genuine intention of helping acts: an intention now apparently superseded by personal vendettas in which acts’ welfare is of secondary or no consideration.
At the end of yesterday’s blog, I drew attention to the fact that, under Scottish Law, an oral agreement constitutes a legally-binding contract and that, if the Cowgatehead people made any oral agreement with the Freestival, it would invalidate any subsequent agreement with PBH.
In a comment on my Facebook page yesterday, comedy critic Kate Copstick (who trained as a Scottish lawyer) added: “And it would seem that, legally speaking, the intervening actions and bookings etc will constitiute a homologation of the Freestival contract”
For those of us who did not train in Scottish Law, the Collins English Dictionary currently defines ‘homologate’ as:
(mainly Scots law) to approve or ratify (a deed or contract)
Acts programmed by Freestival and potentially affected by the chaos.
There has been a bit of chaos in the last few days about who has the right to programme shows at a couple of venues at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. As there has been so much verbiage flying around, it may be worth just putting the key parts together.
Just for the record – and because it will remain interesting to read in the future, looking back – below are the main to-and-froings so far.
The background to this is that Peter Buckley Hill (known as PBH) started Free Fringe shows in which performers pay nothing to hire their venues and audiences pay no entry fee. Instead, on a voluntary basis, members of the audience can donate money on the way out, having seen the show. In effect, it is the long-established system of street busking moved indoors.
PBH’s Free Fringe then combined with Alex Petty’s Laughing Horse outfit to run the Free Fringe. But that soon fell apart due to ‘creative differences’.
Alex Petty then formed the Free Festival as a rival to the Free Fringe (the view of PBH) or as a complement to it (Alex’s view). The same format of ‘indoor busking’ with no entry fee applied.
The Free Festival then became, in PBH’s eyes, The Great Satan (my phrase).
This (in my view) one-sided feud went on until last year, when a group of Free Fringe organisers also broke away from PBH over ‘creative differences’ to form The Freestival which was another rival to the Free Fringe (the view of PBH) or a complement to it (Alex Petty and the new Freestival people’s view). The same format of ‘indoor busking’ with no entry fee applied.
The Freestival then became, in PBH’s eyes The Great Satan (my phrase).
The final deadline for shows to be included in this year’s official Fringe Programme was 8th April. the Programme itself is published on 4th June (next week).
Now read on…
On Thursday last week, Peter Buckley Hill posted this on the Chortle comedy industry website’s Fringe Forum:
READ THIS IF YOU THINK YOU HAVE A SHOW
This post is addressed to all shows who believe they have a Fringe slot in Cowgatehead organised by Freestival.
I regret to have to tell you that Freestival never had permission in 2015 to book shows into Cowgatehead. The slot you think you have is not real.
We have a confirmation from both the owner and the licensee of Cowgatehead. Freestival’s bookings never had their approval, and these bookings are null and void.
I appreciate this will come as a shock to many of you. You will have proceeded on the basis that you had a confirmed performance slot. But you do not.
Even if you have paid Freestival, even if you have paid to be in the Fringe Programme, you do not have a slot.
Your first reaction will be not to believe this message. But it is true.
The licensee has recently approached us, the Free Fringe, to book this space, and has explicitly stated that Freestival has no right to make such bookings. We, The Free Fringe, are now authorised to book all performance spaces at Cowgatehead. No bookings other than those made by us are valid, and none will be honoured, whatever the circumstances.
I appreciate that many of you will be taken aback by this, and most of you will have acted in good faith in applying to Freestival. You are not to be blamed. Freestival, however, is to be blamed for taking bookings into a space which they were not entitled to book.
You could, of course, pretend this is not happening and turn up in August expecting to do a show. But you will not be able to.
These conditions stipulate that you should not be an applicant to any other provider of free-admission shows. This means that you should dissociate from Freestival forthwith.
By applying to the Free Fringe, there is a chance that your slot, or something close to it, may be given back to you. It depends on your application itself and the speed with which you make it.
We will look upon such applications as sympathetically as we can. You will need to mention the slot you thought you had and the length of the run you thought you had.
I have no doubt that Freestival, having been caught doing something they should never have done, will attempt to spin the situation in any way they think might exonerate them. But at the end of the day, they cannot deliver the slot they have promised you, and they have never been able to deliver that slot.
We are also informed that bookings at St John’s are equally invalid, but in that case we have no power to rectify this. Such shows are also welcome to apply to the Free Fringe, but we cannot give you space at St John’s. That is all the information we have about St John’s.
We deplore the actions of Freestival. To run free shows, thus emancipating performers at a Fringe in which many organisations seek to exploit performers, one must be honest. It is difficult enough even if one is fully honest. But to promise you something that they cannot deliver, and to charge you for it, is in our eyes deplorable.
We do not know who you are. But we do know that (according to Freestival’s web site) 171 shows have been promised space by them. The overwhelming majority of these applications are invalid. We urge you to spread this post so that all such shows can be reached.
No doubt they will call this venue poaching on our part. It is not. They never had the venue for 2015. Nothing has been poached. We, the Free Fringe, were contacted by the licensee and asked to programme Cowgatehead for 2015, as the sole programmers. If you thought otherwise, you have been deceived. We will help to the extent we can, giving weight also to our own unallocated applicants.
Free shows need to be honest. Even so, mistakes happen and are difficult enough. I regret that some of you have been the victims of what appears to be dishonesty on the part of Freestival.
That same day, Chortle ran a news item.
I have edited the below to remove repetition:
CHAOS AT THE FRINGE
It’s fast becoming a Fringe tradition – and today the annual row between rival free Edinburgh show promoters flared up in earnest.
The dispute centres on the Cowgatehead performance spaces, which newcomers Freestival operated last year. They have again been programming the space for 2015, with many comedy shows now locked into the official programme.
However Free Fringe founder Peter Buckley Hill has today claimed Freestival had no permission to book shows into the venues, saying that his organisation has the deal to programme the space.
The news would throw dozens of shows into chaos, as it comes after the programme has gone to press. Acts lined up to appear in Cowgatehead include Adam Vincent, Birthday Girls, Christian Steel, Katia Kvinge and Alison Thea-Skot.
However Freestival say the have ‘no idea’ why Buckley Hill – universally known as PBH – had made his statement and reassured acts that their slots were secure.
Alex Petty of Laughing Horse said: ‘Hoping this is bullshit, as whatever games that are be being played here, it only affects performers who will have already paid a considerable sum to be in Edinburgh already.
’However, If any performer has lost a performance space as part of this, and they need to find somewhere, I have gained three additional spaces today, at the Jekyll & Hyde & Meadow Bar, both of which I wasn’t expecting to be running this year.’
Online, the consensus among comedians was that if the PBH Free Fringe was running Cowgatehead, they should honour all the slots offered by Freestival so as not to punish acts who had made considerable outlay to be there.
The Cowgatehead venue was at the centre of a similar row last year, when PBH again claimed that Freestival had no right to run shows there – although in the end they did.
Confusion reigns as the site is effectively controlled by three generations of the Waugh family – all called Kenny. PBH said it was Kenny II promised him the use of the space in 2014, and again this year.
Last year’s deal with PBH fell through after an email was sent from Waugh Taverns Ltd, of which Kenny I is director, which stated that the venue would be programmed by Freestival and stating: ‘Last year we worked with Mr Peter Hill, due to irreconcilable differences we regret we will not be renewing our agreement with him for this coming year.’
Chortle has not yet been able to contact Kenny II about this year’s dispute.
But until it is resolved, at least 90 shows have been thrown into limbo. Currently 67 shows are programmed into Cowgatehead and 23 into St John’s.
Yesterday, Saturday, the Freestival issued a press release:
Performers in 150 Edinburgh Fringe shows fear they have been left without venues after Peter Buckley Hill, ex Fringe Society director and principal controller of ‘The Free Fringe Ltd’ claimed that an Edinburgh venue manager is planning to switch the management of his spaces to the Free Fringe from another Fringe promoter without warning.
The performers have already paid £360 a piece to register their shows in the Fringe Programme, have designed promotional materials and many have also booked and paid for accommodation in August.
In a statement on Facebook and other public forums, Mr Buckley Hill, announced he had, on 21st May, signed a contract with the Licensee of Freestival’s Cowgatehead venue, which has already been fully programmed with the consent of the licensee and owner. The statement also sought to imply Freestival did not have the use of the St Johns venue. The licensee of that venue has since refuted this, stating that it remains a Freestival venue.
Freestival organisers, Jools Constant, Alex Marion and Dan Adams say:
“This has devastated people who are hoping to perform at the 2015 Fringe. We have spent the last two days dealing with distraught phone calls from people who fear their shows will not be able to go ahead.
Our greatest concern is the acts, who have put their trust in us and have already invested time, energy and money in bringing shows to the Fringe. We are appalled that their shows have been thrown into doubt by this senseless and unwarranted action. If the situation cannot be resolved and it is true that the licensee has reneged on his agreement with us, we will do our utmost to work with Peter Buckley Hill to ensure that the performers are disrupted as little as possible. We will do our best to ease their transition to PBH or another provider if they wish.
We are taking advice from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society and hope they can help us find a way to intervene and find definitive answers to a number of outstanding questions including:
How is this able to happen after acts have paid to register and advertise with the Fringe Brochure?
Why would PBH agree to sign the deal so late in the year without first speaking with us, in full knowledge of the commitments already made by ourselves and the performers?
What has prompted the licensee to switch over to PBH after Freestival has been dealing constantly with both him and the building owners regarding the venue since the end of the 2014 Fringe? This included booking performers into the venue at the request of the licensee (and of the only other party originally bidding for the venue’s lease earlier in the year), ongoing discussions about building new rooms to complement those we built in July last year and about improvements to facilities, all with no indication that any other provider was in the running.
Why, when the Licensee has a full 9 room programme in place, would he switch to PBH and a smaller offering of only 6 rooms with smaller capacity?
Why did PBH wrongly include St John’s in his statement, adding needlessly to the number of acts suffering distress?
As no confirmation of the switch has been received by us from the licensee or PBH despite our attempts to obtain clarification, we are not in a position to answer these questions or even to confirm the truth of PBH’s statement.
The welfare of our acts and their shows is our first and only priority. If an act wishes to move to The Free Fringe to keep their allocated slot at Cowgatehead, anything Freestival can do to assist the moving process will be done. As a contingency against the possible loss of the Cowgatehead venue, we are sourcing alternative premises to mitigate any damage that may be caused. We are also in discussions with other promoters to ensure alternative spaces should the news be true and PBH refuses to house affected acts, although we hope PBH will reconsider and agree to transfer the show programme in its entirety. Alex Petty of Laughing Horse has kindly reached out to us and we thank him for his proactive and constructive approach in an uncertain and difficult time. Any of the Cowgatehead performers affected by this who wish to join another organisation will receive a without prejudice Freestival subscription refund.
We firmly refute all allegations of dishonesty or misconduct contained within the PBH statement and in follow up comments from individuals and related parties.
Freestival will not engage in further discussion regarding these; a public social media court is not the correct forum for such matters, given how important it is to ensure our performers interests and commitments are safe guarded and respected. We are hugely sad – given Peter Buckley Hill’s long standing commitment to supporting fringe performers – that he should choose to cast so much doubt over our acts so publicly.
We reiterate our commitment to a fair multi promoter Fringe that works for the good of performers and audiences – those performers who know us understand this and we thank all those who have expressed public support for us in this uncertain distressing time. We will be contacting all the acts affected by this situation on email with proposed alternatives and information updates over the next 48 hours.”
On Friday, Chortle editor Steve Bennett penned an opinion piece:
CAN WE END THIS BRUTAL FRINGE FREE-FOR-ALL
Free shows have been THE success story of the Edinburgh Fringe.
It has transformed the festival, opening it up to more performances and audiences than ever before, built on the excellent, simple principle of no risk on either side. If as a punter you hate the show, leave having paid nothing, if you like it, you pay what it’s worth. And as a comedian, you don’t need to commit thousands for your performance space.
Yet despite the shared basic principles, the main players in the game seem riven by bitter factional in-fighting. It’s often said that in politics the left spend more time fighting themselves than fighting the right, and it’s the same here.
The latest flashpoint over the Cowgatehead venues shows how deep those divisions are. Both Peter Buckley Hill, the founder of the entire movement and still kingpin of the Free Fringe faction, and upstarts Freestival believe they have rights to programme the spaces, right in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town.
Freestival had already put together a full programme for the venue, with acts paying up to £393 to get listed in the official Fringe brochure – more if they took an advert.
Now, after that has gone to print, PBH has publicly told all the comedians who were happy in the knowledge their space had been secured that their deals are worthless, as his Free Fringe will be programming shows there. Freestival cry bullshit.
No doubt both sides sincerely believe they are right. The building is owned by three generations of the same family who don’t always seem to be on the same page, to say the least. But the way this has become a conflict – part of a wider, antagonistic land-grab for as many venues as possible – has caused huge anxiety for the nearly 70 performers already, allegedly, booked into Cowgatehead.
The movement that was supposed to let them concentrate on their show and relieve some of the stresses of Edinburgh has done the exact opposite.
There are only two possibilities here.
One, that PBH is wrong, and that Freestival have the right to the Room – in which case this is needless scaremongering, and will have done severe damage to his reputation as one of the good guys.
The second is that he is right and they don’t. In which case PBH should honour every booking that Freestival made so as not to mess up a single performer. He has said his organisation ‘will look upon such applications as sympathetically as we can’ but also, less encouragingly only that ‘there is a chance that your slot, or something close to it, may be given back to you’.
Performers who want to be part of the PBH Free Fringe have to sign up to a 3,600-word ‘conditions and ethos’ statement – a key part of which is that if you apply to the Free Fringe you cannot apply to any rival. This is the only operator – including the supposedly evil paid venues – to impose this draconian condition on applicants.
PBH stressed this clause in his Facebook post, putting comedians in an impossible situation. They cannot hedge their bets and apply to PBH in case he’s right, while keeping their Freestival slots open. He’s forcing them to quit Freestival and go with him in a situation, frankly, where no one knows for sure what’s happening.
The only thing that’s clear is that this is unclear. The two fringe organisations, and the owners of the site, are using the divisions on either side for some power games that the performers should not be troubled by. PBH should at least allow performers to apply to both organisations and guarantee their slots should the Freestival deal be built on sand, as he believes. If he’s right, he will be their saviour and none of the comedians will trust Freestival again… he need not use the prohibitive, anti-competitive stick of the contract to win them over.
Differences between the free organisations are minor and, when it comes to the greater good, should be put aside, even – maybe especially – on such a troublesome venue to lock down.
Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly put their decades-old differences aside to publish a joint venues programme. How much more powerful would the free movement be if they could issue a similar comprehensive brochure advertising all their offerings? But until they can put their sectarian feuds to one side, it’ll never happen.
In response to that Chortle piece, the Freestival issued this:
To answer both your questions:
(1) Are you conceding that PBH will be running Cowgatehead? – we are not, for the simple reason that neither the licensee nor PBH have contacted us regarding this, or responded to our attempts to communicate with them. As things stand the only information available is PBH’s statement. We have asked him to end speculation by producing a contract. So far we have received no response. However we are putting in place contingency plans to protect our acts as best as possible, including offering to work with PBH to place our performers in the slots they have legitimately been offered and accepted. We have also acted to ensure that any acts who cannot, or do not want to, move to PBH are taken care of, by opening discussions with Alex Petty, who has been hugely constructive in his support, and by starting to source alternative venues. Bear in mind it’s only May – last year we sourced 2 new venues with less than 48 hours to go and got audiences into them. We have no doubt we can find quality alternative venues.
(2)Do you have any written deal with the venue? – we do not. What we do have is a good faith agreement based on the following facts:
– Acting on our behalf our sponsors secured an agreement with the building owners that we would provide entertainment in Cowgatehead, regardless of who had the license to provide bars
– there were 2 parties bidding to be licensees, including the current operator. We had verbal agreements with both parties that we would provide entertainment at Cowgatehead, and had been requested by both to provide a programme. We then entered into discussions with both, not about whether we would provide a programme, but the particulars of how a programme that had already been agreed would be provided, including disposition of stages, installation of toilets and improvements to access and signage. In other words, we had oral agreements with not just one but 4 parties (owners, sponsors and both potential licensees). It’s worth pointing out that under Scottish Law an oral agreement constitutes a contract.
– the issue of who would be the licensee was not resolved until a little over 2 weeks ago, long after the deadline for brochure entries and even longer after all parties involved had assured us we would be providing a programme of events in Cowgatehead.
– 3 days after the licensee signed a deal with the building owners we sent a draft agreement to the licensee, which we assumed would be discussed, amended and signed.
– On 21st May PBH posted his statement. Up until this point no other potential provider had ever been mentioned and PBH had programmed no acts into the venue.
– In light of all this we have no doubt that we have acted appropriately and in good faith throughout this process and were justified in doing so in legal, moral and practical terms.
Now we have a question for you:
(3) Why do you keep describing this as in fighting between us and PBH?
There is no fight. We are not, and never have, fought. What there has been, consistently, since the moment we suggested working with PBH to improve the Free Fringe, is attacks, by PBH and his team, against us. Let’s be absolutely clear, we have never openly criticised PBH or the Free Fringe, we have never engaged with the attacks against us and we have never sought hostility. In fact we have put our admiration of Peter’s pioneering work in founding the Free Fringe on record, and we have welcomed, indeed encouraged, Free Fringe acts to share Freestival stages whenever they wished (although some preferred not to appear in the publicity for fear of reprisals).
Not only that, in January we were offered 2 PBH venues, Whistlebinkies and the Globe, but we turned them down because we believe in a healthy free sector and we don’t want to damage Peter’s offering. Beyond that we have done all this because frankly we are not interested in somebody else’s vendetta. We are only interested in providing the best experience possible for our acts and audiences and for that reason, because now he has caused unforgivable anxiety and distress for the acts we have worked so closely with for months, just for today, we are going to break that rule.
Peter’s behaviour in this matter has been reprehensible. He cannot pretend that he did not know his actions would lead to at best deep distress and at worst the destruction of dreams for dozens of performers, exactly the people who he has always claimed to champion. He cannot claim that his actions have been in anyone’s best interests – he has acted purely in pursuance of an imagined feud with us, people who have never set out to do anything to him. He must know that he doesn’t have enough acts to fill even the down sized 6 room venue he is planning, and that he is in danger of throwing acts onto the street so that his spite, selfishness and thoughtless cruelty can play itself out in empty rooms.
The truth is, as anyone but his most ardent supporters (who by the way have verged on the libellous in their social media comments – we are considering taking legal advice) must realise, that Peter should have said no. He should have said, in the interests of the acts, “I won’t do this – look me up next year”. But he didn’t because he could not resist the opportunity to attack us, and he didn’t care about the collateral damage. After all, they’re just people, with dreams and as the Free Fringe ethos states: “Abandon your dreams. It’s not going to happen.”
Of course, the same ethos says repeatedly: “Don’t be a dick”. Clearly a case of do as I say, not as I do.
That’s it. We will return now to what we have always done – looking after our acts.
In my view, the key sentence in that last statement is:
“It’s worth pointing out that under Scottish Law an oral agreement constitutes a contract.”
If the Cowgatehead people made any verbal agreement with the Freestival, it would invalidate any subsequent agreement with PBH.
As far as I am aware, the Free Fringe has, as yet, programmed no shows into the Cowgatehead venue.
The magician Stu Turner has made a parody video which is not irrelevant to all this the chaos. It is on YouTube.
Copstick took a leek during yesterday’s recording of the Grouchy Club Podcast
Yesterday, after unsuccessfully trawling St Pancras station for a likely place to sit, comedy critic Kate Copstick and I recorded our third Grouchy Club Podcast sitting outside the British Library on Euston Road in London. The result runs 44 minutes and is HERE.
We also recorded it on video so that I could upload a 10-minute clip onto YouTube… But I may have erased that by accident. I will find out this afternoon when I go to the Apple Store in Regent Street and throw myself on their mercy.
Among the things Copstick and I discussed yesterday were why Free Fringe founder Peter Buckley Hill told her I was “odious” and why Copstick thinks comedy critic Bruce Dessau is wrong to say I am “enigmatic”.
Copstick has very strong opinions which she is not afraid to express, as demonstrated in this brief extract from the podcast:
…….. I’ll tell you what else The Man had, which was massive quantities of sweat. We were quite a small, intimate audience…
Oh! I can’t stand… I don’t find him funny.
Oh, poor Lee Evans. He’s very funny.
I really don’t. I mean, I appreciate he’s a national treasure and everybody else in the world does, but I don’t find ‘stupid’ funny. I hate all the falling around and the ridiculous hurtling around on stage. I just can’t stand it. I just have to look away. When he used to be not-so-outrageously-famous-and-hugely-internationally-successful and he was on, say, at the Comedy Store, I used to go out (of the room) when he was on. All that manic hurtling around and the slapstick and the craziness I can’t cope with.
I’m a very un-fan of Buster Keaton, Abbot & Costello, all of those. I hate – I really really do dislike – any kind of slapstick comedy. I find it irritating in the extreme, because it’s stupid.
But surely the basis of comedy is stupidity.
No, the basis of comedy is aggression, I think you’ll find, John.
The basis of your reviews is aggression.
No no no no no. The basis of my reviews is truth about and passion for. That’s not aggression.
I have a feeling your autobiography is going to be called My Struggle.
(Laughs) But, erm, no no no, I don’t think my…
There is no basis of comedy, because there is no one thing called comedy, is there? There are all sorts of reasons for laughing.
It’s, yes, disguised aggression and I don’t believe particularly that there’s a great deal of comedy that doesn’t have something as its butt.
I never understood the Laurel & Hardy thing – even as a kid – where kicking someone in the bottom was apparently very funny in 1920 or something.
I mean, the whole banana skin thing… Just look where you are going, for Godsake!
But that can work. It’s the timing, isn’t it? You’re not laughing particularly at the slapstick. You’re laughing at the timing, because it’s unexpected…
It’s… I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a worry, but it irritates me. It used to irritate me more – many other things about me irritate me more now. But it used to irritate me that I didn’t understand what’s funny about slapstick. Even if it doesn’t make me laugh out loud, I have a need to understand… I don’t get it.
It’s beautifully done. But, you see, I hated Only Fools and Horses.
I didn’t like it either, but…
I really hated Only Fools and Horses.
Why did you hate Only Fools and Horses?
Because the people were stupid. Rodney was stupid.
I thought they were cartoon characters who didn’t quite work.
Next, Noel Faulkner – Grouchy at the Comedy Cafe
Next Sunday’s recording of The Grouchy Club Podcast (no audience admitted) will be at London’s Comedy Cafe Theatre and should have its highly outspoken owner Noel Faulkner discussing comedy with Copstick.
Slander and libel lawyers – You have been warned!
You can listen to the third Grouchy Club Podcast HERE.
The three nominees for the MALCOLM HARDEE CUNNING STUNT AWARD
for best (cunning) stunt promoting an Edinburgh Fringe act or show are:
for persuading people that comedian Frankie Boyle was playing a secret gig at the Pleasance, then revealing that the gig did not feature Frankie Boyle at all but was a Luke McQueen gig. There was reportedly an element of disgruntlement in the audience. A brief debate between the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award judges seemed to decide that stupidity was possibly a bonus in being nominated for a Cunning Stunt Award. Irate audience members can find him at the Pleasance Courtyard at 8.00pm in a show called Now That’s What I Luke McQueen.
Mark Dean Quinn
for bringing originality to the vital yet under-rated art of flyering for two shows. To ‘sell’ Ben Target’s show, he handed out blank strips of paper to passers-by. If they asked why, he gave them a small card with show details. This meant the right audiences self-selected themselves for the show. He also flyered for the ACMS (Alternative Comedy Memorial Society) by standing with his head in a cardboard box full of flyers. People were inclined to take them. He also flyered last year for a non-existent Fringe show. If we had heard of this last year, I would have certainly nominated him for that. As I wrote re the previous nominee, stupidity is a plus point.
– another award for creative flyering – for getting his 12-year old daughter Kate to wander up to strangers in the street, looking sad and distraught, asking them “Have you seen my daddy?” then, if they say No, handing them a flyer with details of where they can see his show – which is called Hello Cruel World (8.20pm at the Underbelly, Bristo Square).
All this brings us to the increasingly contentious ACT MOST LIKELY TO MAKE A MILLION QUID AWARD
Last year, we did not present this award because we did not think anyone deserved it.
However, the award had already been made, so – given that it is in the form of a £ sign with a bite taken out of it, we awarded it under the name THE POUND OF FLESH AWARD to Ellis, who was beaten up by his double act partner Rose so that they could claim he was beaten up in the street by a punter irate at their Jimmy Savile: The Punch and Judy Show.
This year, we have decided to nominate two acts for this trophy and, depending on who wins it, we will call it by a different name.
The first nominee – for the ACT MOST LIKELY TO MAKE A MILLION QUID AWARD is the amazing crowd-pulling Luisa Omielan. Over the last year, she has been touring with What Would Beyonce Say? This year, her new Fringe show is Am I Right, Ladies? (10.15pm at The Counting House)
If the other nominee wins the trophy, it will be called the ACT LEAST LIKELY TO MAKE A MILLION QUID AWARD. The nominee for that is Fringe legend Peter Buckley Hill, who created the Free Fringe and spawned all the other copies of the ‘free’ model in Edinburgh, London and elsewhere. Unlike most acts, Peter has heroically never aspired to make any money from the Fringe and has staunchly defended his free model. His unlisted-in-the-main-Fringe-Programme show Peter Buckley Hill and Some Comedians is 9.35pm at Canons’ Gait.
The three awards for Comic Originality (left), Cunning Stunt (right) and the Million Quid Award
Could this have been a last Edinburgh Free Fringe?
It is a current cliché that British comedy is under threat at a grass roots level.
Comedy clubs are closing across the country.
One cause seems to be that (as started happening at the Edinburgh Fringe several years ago) people are spending their money in large amounts on recognisable Big Name acts in bigger venues and not seeing unknown acts in smaller venues.
There are, however, two balancing factors.
One is that – in my opinion – in the last two years at the Fringe, the most interesting comedy has been in shows not listed in the Comedy section of the programme but in the Cabaret section. Or shows listed in the Comedy section but which are not straight stand-up shows.
Possibly more about this in tomorrow’s blog.
The other interesting factor is the rise of ‘free’ shows which are, in effect, indoor busking: you do not pay in advance; you pay whatever you want (or nothing) having seen the show.
The Free Fringe was started in Edinburgh by Peter Buckley Hill and spawned the Free Festival (which, depending on your viewpoint, is either a competitor of or complementary to the Free Fringe)… Then, this year, Bob Slayer’s ‘Pay What You Want’ shows started within the Free Festival. These followed the same ‘pay-on-exit’ model, but also allowed you to buy tickets in advance which guarantee a seat. I understand other promoters are looking at using the same model at next year’s Edinburgh Fringe.
Peter Buckley Hill’s ‘free’ model has also spread to London and elsewhere.
Lewis Schaffer has been performing regular twice-a-week (sometimes even more) comedy shows in London since 2009 and has, this year, also been performing a successful weekly ‘pay’ show in London. – well, it keeps getting extended, so it must be successful although Lewis Schaffer eschews success. He has also successfully toured his Free Until Famous show around several English arts centres as a free-to-enter show. And, last night, I went to Nelly Scott/Zuma Puma’s weekly Lost Cabaret club in Stockwell, which is one of several venues running the free model.
Again, possibly more about this in tomorrow’s blog.
This week, though, there has been some trouble in paradise and aggro in the ‘free comedy’ movement.
Five of the PBH Free Fringe’s regular performers wrote a letter to PBH – Peter Buckley Hill – saying, among other things:
We wanted to express our increasing concern about the workload that an expanding free fringe is placing on your shoulders. Many times you have expressed the desire to step aside and allow the team to take over more responsibility leaving you more time to perform and enjoy the fringe. Plus, it is no longer feasible to continue without a contingency plan in place should you for any reason be unable to take your customary leading role in the Fringe. Crucially, so much knowledge and information resides with you alone that a failure to disseminate this more widely and plan for your potential absence would in all likelihood lead to the whole organisation fragmenting.
Peter Buckley Hill’s reaction in an open letter (well, e-mail) to Free Fringe participants was:
I am not going to be pushed aside to become a figurehead. There will be no committee except of people who have proven themselves by undertaking a major responsibility and seeing it through to the end, such as the section Artistic Directors. There was a proto-committee in 2012/13. It collapsed and I had to pick up the work myself. You don’t get to set policy until you have proved your worthiness by doing a job.
Rather than have people trying to take over and change the principles, I will cancel the whole event and wind up the Free Fringe Ltd. Anybody attempting to start their own organisation will do so from scratch, with their own money, as I had to all those years ago. You can’t use my name or initials without my consent. The logo belongs to The Free Fringe Ltd, as does all the PA and all the money in the bank.
I presume the people behind this ultimatum will now want to form their own organisation and start charging for membership so they can pay themselves for their own work, just as they propose in the ultimatum. And in order to do that they’ll capture as many Free Fringe venues as they can.
If I consider it worthwhile, I may decide to continue the Free Fringe with the venues that are left to us. But I do not have to. I have put in more money, time and stress than the signatories of this ultimatum can imagine. They’ve never organised the Free Fringe and don’t know the details, and yet they already think they can do it better. I’ll carry on if there’s support for the real principles of the Free Fringe. Venues may be difficult, as I already said they would be. If there is insufficient support, then I shall wind the Company up.
I have written a brief paper detailing the things that must not happen to the Free Fringe, and attach it. If any of these things happen, they would change the whole principle of the Free Fringe. Therefore they will not, no matter how many people think otherwise.
Some things about the Free Fringe ethos are negotiable; some are not.
What are the things that must not happen?
– No payments to venues
– No sponsorship
– No charges to performers
– No performers to be paid for the services they give to the Free Fringe
– No performer to be a customer and demand rights in that capacity
– All performers to contribute to the collective according to their abilities.
This list is not exhaustive. It merely represents the difference between slight negotiable changes and fundamental changes. The Free Fringe may evolve, but if it violates these principles it might as well die.